We live in glass-half-empty days. Economic uncertainty, environmental crises, interminable wars, the rise of China, and the perceived decline of the West—it all points to one ineluctable conclusion: we’re fucked. Surely this accounts for the uptick in dystopias appearing in recent science fiction. As sci-fi virtuosa Ursula Le Guin wrote in 2009, one thing the form does is “extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire.”
Sci-fi has always been a kind of funhouse mirror for our dreams and anxieties. Maybe that’s why, in this especially anxious age, futuristic dystopias are showing up even in mainstream bestsellers by writers not usually confined to that genre ghetto—books like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Margaret Atwood’s trio of speculative novels. Tellingly, what these stories have in common is a total absence of Martians and spaceships. If the planet is going to be destroyed, they argue, we’re the ones who’ll do it. The fault lies not in our starmen, but in ourselves.
Rise of the Numberless is those books’ noisy adolescent sibling. A rock musical jointly produced by the New Colony and Bailiwick Chicago, it takes place 50 years after a cataclysmic natural disaster involving earthquakes and a tidal wave that washed away Florida. To preserve its dwindling resources in the wake of the catastrophe, the government decreed that each American family was allowed only one child. A number was implanted in the left wrist of every newborn to help keep track. Harsh penalties were enacted for lawbreakers.
Some families nevertheless defied the policy, hiding second pregnancies and then leaving their unnumbered children with caretakers living in underground “pods.” The script never satisfactorily explains why couples would go to all the trouble of having kids under these circumstances, only to abandon them in the sewer. Were they accidents? Victims of their parents’ wishful thinking? Are there no condoms in the future? We’re left to wonder.
Still, the world of the play—including its terminology and codes of conduct—is vividly imagined by coauthors Patriac Coakley, Andrew Hobgood, and Evan Linder. And the raw sense of abandonment felt by the numberless is effectively reflected in 11 loud, punky songs by Chris Gingrich, Julie Nichols, and Hobgood. “Now you all know how we came to be ghosts,” the not-so-alright kids sing, “haunting this land underground.”
But they aren’t passive victims. According to the authors’ chronicle, the numberless rose up 25 years after the one-child policy was adopted, and they’ve been locked in a bloody struggle with the government ever since. The civil war’s inciting event—the murder of the president, his wife, and their adult son in the White House—has led to the numberless being branded as terrorists. The production is framed as a concert put on by a later generation of rebels to set the record straight and garner our support for the cause.
The rebels’ revisionist version of the first family’s demise calls to mind the sibling rivalries of Genesis—Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his envious brothers. As they tell it, the president and first lady had more than one child themselves. In addition to the legally sanctioned Joshua there was Jacob (told you: biblical echoes), whom the first lady left among the numberless shortly after his birth. Jacob found out who he was when mom went underground to warn him that his father—a merciless Dick Cheney type—planned to slaughter the pesky numberless ruffians once and for all. The presidental patriarch sent Joshua to lead the charge, never telling him that he’d be killing his own brother. Joshua’s discovery of how he’d been used led to the bloody denouement.
This lurid tale is told with outrage and rambunctious energy in Hobgood’s intentionally sloppy staging, which features a live band and a 15-member cast thrashing around in grungy-glam paramilitary garb. But the show never reaches its full potential owing to its creators’ tendency to approach but then shy away from moments of human feeling. The scene where Joshua realizes what he’s done to his brother is cut short by an impatient ensemble member telling him to get to the song already. And the action is often interrupted for debates over whether the concert should continue, given that government forces are closing in (at one point we hear helicopters). These fourth-wall-breaking techniques are presumably meant to ratchet up the tension, but they distract us instead.
We’re allowed only glimpses of the suffering human beings behind the mythmaking and melodrama—and those glimpses usually come in songs, the best of which is “Baptized by Fire,” a power ballad describing an orphan’s sense of loss and how it feels to have been deemed not worth keeping. “Life was all color,” the lyrics begin. “Your mother cradled you close, / And sang lullabies deep with regrets . . . Bye baby bye.”